• Spirited Adventures

Wilderness Safari: Hydration & Water Purification

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

When we combine the volume of fluid lost through physical exertion, with that lost through sweating as result of the heat of the African savanna, we quickly realize that we need an effective hydration strategy whilst on trail.

Elephant facilitating water in a seemingly dry river bed.

Water is critical to our survival and it is said that on average we will can only survive 3 minutes without oxygen, 3 days without water and 3 weeks without food. Water though weighs a fair amount and it is simply not possible to carry enough for the longer trails. To compensate for this, we obtain water by digging in “seemingly dry” riverbeds, from flowing river systems, building wells next to water [flowing or still] and when water is really scarce we might even consider standing water.

Based on the fact that most water sources are exposed to some form of animal or human activity, the latter three options are likely to contain contamination that could include bacteria, viruses, industrial overflow, or otherwise. Clean water is really a big deal – Water transmitted diseases, mostly stomach based, include amoebic dysentery, bilhizaria, campylobacteriosis, cholera, cryptosporidiosis, gastroenteritis, giardiasis, leptospirosis, shigella dysentery, typhoid fever and viral hepatitis. Contaminated water can have very unpleasant health consequence that are exasperated if on a trip.

Fortunately water purification is relatively easy – On wilderness trails we very successfully use either purpose built filters or water purification drops. Based on the time taken, and amount of fuel used, we dont know anyone who boils water.

Purification drops work very well BUT nothing beats water crystal clear water - We thus always suggest a parallel filtration system for this purpose. Accepting that the drops are dealing with most of contaminants, this type of filtration could be via a gypsy well or even filtering through a buff. Drops are effective against bacteria and viruses, whereas filters cannot take out viruses. Remember that the drop require 30 - 60 minutes to work their magic. Before using any chemical or heavy metal treatment, ensure that you are not allergic to any of the content.

When we shift our attention to purpose built filters for adventurers, we find that the market is dominated by MSR, Katadyn, Platypus, Life Straw and Sawyer. These are generally categorized into pump, gravity, straw or squeeze filters. Gravity filters require very little effort and are better for larger volumes of water. Straw filters are NO good for volume. With all filters varying levels of maintenance are required, normally back flushing or cleaning, to keep up flow rates. The dirtier the water, the faster the filter's flow rate will decrease.

To deal with filtration we love and recommend the Sawyer Mini filter. Our reason - This little guy is very affordable, takes up hardly any space in your pack and weighs 57 grams - This is very different, on all three of these points, to most of the other systems on the market. Filtering to 0.1 micron, it removes nearly all bacteria [including salmonella, leptospirosis, cholera and E.coli] and most protozoa [including giardia and cryptosporidium].

We set up the Sawyer to work through a simple gravity feed that hardly costs anything to make. We built the system with an 80cm long 20mm thick pipe, an empty two-liter soda bottle, two bottle tops and a piece of cord. Total build time is perhaps 30 minutes and we constructed it with a hot glue gun, a soldering iron and an electronic Dremel. Water flow is good and as you are not focused on squeezing water through the filter you are able to multi-task. Don’t forget to bring the syringe to back-flush the system – You be surprised how much gunk it extracts.

Shifting our minds from purification, back to hydration and other water related matters, it is also important to consider how to:

  • replace the minerals and electrolytes which your body will lose whilst sweating, as not doing so, can result in your feeling unwell and lethargic.

  • carry your drinking water on trail. Will it be in a hydration bladder or water bottles, or a combination of the two. If using soda bottles, two or three one liter soda bottles, balance backpack weight better.

  • store additional water in camp [cooking, etc]. Ideas can include water carrying bladders such as the brilliant MSR Dromedaries, dry bags, collapsible buckets and empty two-liter soda bottles [cheap and bomb proof].

  • best locate water using natural indicators, signs or in in seemingly dry river beds.

  • excavate, structure and then rehabilitate, wells built to facilitate your drinking water.

  • deal with the murky, sediment filled water, in freshly dug wells.

As an aside, a gypsy well dug next to a flowing river, is a basic filter and should never be viewed as a primary filter. These bio-filters have three separate filter layers - Gravel [removes large solids] and sand [removes small solids] with varying levels of activated charcoal [removes some microscopic pathogens]. This filtration technique does not filter out all micro contaminants – However through removing larger particles it makes the water look better, taste better and makes most subsequent water purification processes work better.

Hopefully this information helps you stay hydrated, and healthy, on trail. Part of safari backpacking experience is that your wilderness guide is there to help. They should be keen on sharing her/ his knowledge to help you on your journey.

One last point, it might sound obvious but for an easy start fill your water bottles at home.

Have fun!


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